M-Audio Keystation Mini 32
iPad savvy MIDI controller
Geek Treat of the Week It always pays to read the fine print, especially when it’s to be found on the bottom of a box, while on the top the label says, ‘Works with iPad’. Such is the case with M-Audio’s Keystation Mini 32, a really rather good portable keyboard controller for mobile musos and the classroom.
This host powered 32-note USB keyboard isn’t much bigger than a decent baguette, although a good deal flatter. Naturally, the keys aren’t full-size, but they are velocity sensitive, so the harder you hit them, the louder things sound. At this point I should mention that this is a dumb keyboard, so you’ll need to plumb it into host computer or iPad with some music software running and synth sounds to trigger.
Settling scores: M-Audio's Keystation Mini 32
If you’re bereft of such sonic software sophistication, you’re in luck because the Keystation Mini 32 features Sibelius First plus a bunch of utilities. If you were hoping for some GarageBand wannabee application, then you’re in for a bit of a surprise. Sibelius is a music scoring application that originally appeared on the Acorn Archimedes. Now on Mac and PC, v7 Professional will set you back around £420 with educational incarnation about half that.
And there’s the clue. This keyboard is an input device that is sufficient enough to allow note tweaking in a scoring application for both small and large pinkies. If you’re a Steinberg Cubase or Apple Logic play-as-you-go muso, and notes on a stave look like tadpoles to you, then Sibelius First is likely to stay in the box unopened, as you’ll probably have seizure getting to grips with it. But no harm in trying, especially as it has guitar tablature creation on-board too.
Sibelius First is focused on music scoring and editing but has a mixer and a multipart General MIDI tone generator
Click for a larger image
Indeed, hooking up to laptop simply involves plugging in to the USB port and the Keystation Mini 32 is detected as a MIDI interface which can the be used on any music software application to record live or, if you must, step-time performances.
The keys, while fairly shallow in length, are a decent width and perfectly playable. They have a decent amount of resistance to them, so you can dig in a bit, but the their size will undoubtedly hamper speedy solos, although unlike Akai's cheaper LPK25, you do get another seven more keys. It also seems fairly robust although it does flex a bit.
Pitch and modulation controls are on-board but are somewhat unrefined
To the left is a control section with +/- keys to allow instant octave jumping along with pitch bend, modulation and sustain functions. There’s a volume control (which affects MIDI/virtual instruments) and an edit mode too, which enables tweaking of parameters from the keyboard including different velocity curves.
Some keys are labelled to show their secondary function in edit mode. To make velocity sensitivity changes, simply hit the edit key which lights up, press Vel (the first G key), choose 0 to 3 for increasing loudness or enter in a value from 4 to 127 for fixed sensitivity and then hit the last key (Enter).
Xewton's Music Studio confirms the connections on the iPad
The volume knob can also be changed to work with continuous controller data by using the same procedure – choose the last F# (Knob) key and to change something like pan, use the numbered keys to tap in 10, hit enter again and you’re done. The Keystation Mini 32 manual, which you’ll need to download from here [PDF 1.4MB], lists the whole gamut of standard MIDI CC numbers and Channel mode messages that can be assigned.
So how does it work with an iPad? After a bit of tinkering, very well, as it happens, but as the small print says, you need the Apple iPad Camera Connection Kit. This accessory will set you back £25 and includes the iOS-dock-to-USB adapter that you use to plug in the Keystation Mini 32.
And your bird can sing...
I tried it on a bunch of apps and nothing worked. Then I quit all the apps on my iPad 2, unplugged/replugged the keyboard and started again, kicking off with Xewton’s Music Studio 1.6.1. Apart from being an impressive sequencer, this also reveals the status of the MIDI configuration, which boosts confidence. Incidentally, running a MIDI controller with iOS devices or through the camera connector isn't unique to this product, but it is a neat combination.
Tests with Apple's GarageBand followed, which was all well and good, but unlike Music Studio, the virtual keys didn’t move when playing from the Keystation Mini 32, even though you could hear every note. It’s not a big deal, but when it comes to hooking up with external controllers, the Xewton app seems more refined than Apple’s offering. Incidentally, I did try it with an iPhone 3G, but attaching the camera kit prompted a message that it isn't supported and the keyboard didn't power up either.
Educational goal: the Sibelius software will score points with music students – the hardware anyone can play with
The M-Audio Keystation 32 Mini has appeal for quite a diverse range of players. With its Sibelius First software it offers an educational tool as well as scoring functions for more traditional arrangers/composers. Those not versed in music theory can use it alongside more contemporary music applications on a laptop, desktop or iPad – although they might want to consider splashing out a bit extra for a larger keyboard with additional controllers.
Still, it is a very handy size, but the main catch for iPad users is that the camera kit adapter is almost half the price of this keyboard. Yet try it and you’ll be hooked, as makes a huge difference when knocking out fondleslab fugues. ®
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